“… and dance to the music of Sunset Drive” go the lyrics and theme of this nationally known group whose roots are in Patrick and Henry County, Virginia. Sunset Drive is a rebirth of the sixties, both in the repertoire of songs and the reunion of lifelong musicians and friends.
Back in 1963, when ‘Deep Purple’ and ‘Wipeout’ were blaring on the am dial, several young local musicians began playing gigs together in a combo they called ‘The Embers’. Two of these music rookies were Cecil Akers from Stuart and Carlton Wilkes of Bassett. Then in 1966, when soul music was being pumped out of Detroit directly to every top 40 radio station in the U.S., and the British music invasion was well under way, two more basement Beethovens, Warren Rodgers and Joe Owens of Stuart, joined the group. Complete with rhythm section, sax, and trumpet, they started playing venues such as the Pythion Hall, the Park More Charcoal Loft, and Forest Park Country Club in Martinsville, Virginia. Although not the same group of ‘Embers’ who have achieved beach music fame on the East Coast, these guys played the hits as they surfaced in the two-inch transistor radio speakers which were carried by all that were ‘in the groove’ at the time. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley, Mitch Ryder, Joe Tex, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles all had their hits played by this young group of music wanna-be’s. Another group, ‘Little Stevie and the Upsetters’ was playing the same venues, competing for jobs with The Embers. Due to college, graduation, family, etc., both groups splintered off in several directions. At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (known as VPI at the time) another group formed and called themselves ‘The Soulsations’, headed by Stuart native Rick Flippin, a member of both groups. Soon Warren Rodgers and Joe Owens of The Embers were incorporated into the group and they acquired regional fame, backing recording artists such as The Showmen and Clifford Curry, and getting radio play on their 45 single on Aliquot Records ‘Love Machine’. Uncle Sam picked off Joe Owens, and soon after the Soulsations went national, Warren Rodgers decided to go back to college and left the group.
In 1975, three of the original Embers from Stuart, Cecil Akers, Joe Owens, and Warren Rodgers, got back together, along with several other musicians from the area and started a band called ‘Crossfire’. Again, they played the local venues with the same basic songs they had played years back. As time went on Carlton Wilkes, a Bassett native and original member of ‘The Embers’ , ‘Little Stevie and the Upsetters’, and ‘Gene and the Teenbeats’, moved back to the area and rejoined the band. ‘Crossfire’ changed its name to ‘Sunset Drive’ in the late-80’s and went through many personnel changes. The new name came from the name of the street in Stuart, VA where Cecil Akers lives and in whose basement the group rehearsed for many years. Although most of the members maintained regular jobs in addition to the band, Sunset Drive traveled extensively, playing venues in Virginia and the adjoining states, including six consecutive New Year’s Eve Galas’ at the prestigious Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
1999 to 2014, Sunset Drive has been performing as the backup band for
Percy Sledge, the hit maker of the ’60’s soul era with his number one hit ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’. For these concerts two backup singers were added,
Holly Williams and Terri Birkett of Stuart. In addition to many Virginia dates, Sunset Drive has performed with Percy Sledge in Maryland, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia,
Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In 2004 Sunset Drive began backing up ‘Mr. Tighten-Up’
Archie Bell from Houston, Texas and accompanied him to his induction into the South Carolina Beach Music Hall Of Fame.
In 2005, Percy Sledge was inducted into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sunset
Drive performed with him the morning of his
induction on ABC Television show 'Good
Morning America'. Sunset Drive has
performed in 2006 and 2007 at the Lincoln
Center for the Performing Arts in New York
City, backing Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, and
Dee Dee Sharp, as well as doing a tribute to
50 years of STAX Records.
2018 edition of Sunset Drive includes the four core members,
Cecil Akers (keyboards and vocals), Warren Rodgers (bass guitar and vocals),
Joe Owens (guitar), all of Stuart, VA, and Carlton Wilkes (saxophone), a resident of
Boones Mill, VA. Rounding out the band are John Stone (drums) of Fieldale,
Chris Wilkes (trumpet and son of Carlton Wilkes) from
VA, Ben Prunty (lead vocals and saxophone) of
Charlotttesville VA, and
Warren Rodgers, Jr. (sound engineering and son of Warren Rodgers), of Critz,
Sunset Drive released their first CD self-titled as ‘SUNSET DRIVE’© in April 2002 on WRM records ®.
Their next CD was released in September,
2004, entitled ‘Percy Sledge and Sunset Drive - Live In Virginia’© , also on WRM records ®
. A live DVD music video with
Percy Sledge was filmed in Prestonsburg, KY
in July, 2006 and released in April, 2007
entitled 'Percy Sledge - The Ultimate
Performance'. A new Sunset Drive CD is
being recorded and will be released